Zardari says NATO helicopters intruded

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari claims that Pakistani troops were only firing warning shots, not assault shots, at US-NATO helicopters over the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.


President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday disputed Washington's version of a NATO-Pakistani military encounter that highlighted growing tension between the allies in the US-led war on terror.

The incident occurred as Pakistan's new leader was in New York for his first meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, before international talks here Friday to tackle the threat to Afghanistan from Pakistan-based militants.

Zardari, who has vowed zero-tolerance for NATO military strikes into Pakistan from Afghanistan, contradicted accounts here and in Kabul that US-NATO helicopters had come under "small arms fire" inside Afghan territory.

"You mean the flares," Zardari replied when a reporter asked about the US and NATO accounts. "They're flares just to make sure that they know that they have crossed the border line."

In Islamabad, the Pakistani military said the troops had fired warning shots at two helicopters which were "well within Pakistani territory."

In Kabul, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) insisted however that the choppers had not entered Pakistani airspace.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said two US helicopters were flying inside Afghanistan when they came under fire from Pakistani troops along the border Thursday, calling the incident an "unfortunate misunderstanding."

At the start of her meeting with Zardari on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Rice played down the border incident when she told the Pakistani president: "The border is very, very unclear, I know."

The incident underscored the heightened tensions along the border in the face of a growing insurgency in Afghanistan supported from sanctuaries inside Pakistan's tribal areas.

Stepped up US missile strikes and a reported raid into Pakistan earlier this month by US special operations forces have further strained relations between the United States and its erstwhile ally, Pakistan.

Zardari, the widower of former premier Benazir Bhutto who was murdered by militants last December as she charted a US-supported comeback to help end a crisis in Pakistani politics, warned last week that Pakistan would not tolerate violations of its sovereignty.

General David Petraeus, who will take charge of US forces in southwest Asia and the Middle East next month, told reporters that Pakistani and US-led troops would have to work together to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"Pakistan faces a threat that certainly seems to be an existential threat," he said, at a press conference at the US embassy in Paris.

The United States on Thursday suspended visa services at consular offices in Pakistan citing deepening concerns over security in the wake of the deadly bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the State Department said.

A suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with more than half a tonne of explosives into the security gates of the Marriott Hotel in the Pakistani capital on Saturday, killing at least 60 people, including two US military personnel assigned to the US embassy and the Czech ambassador to Pakistan.

In coordination with the British, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, US officials seek to stage high-level talks here Friday to debate "common strategies" to help Pakistan defeat the Islamist militant threat.

Rice and Zardari are both expected to join ministers from other countries, US officials say.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters Thursday that leaders or ministers from the United States, Britain, the Gulf states and other European countries along with Germany would gather.

"We will together discuss how we can achieve stability in Pakistan," he said.

Steinmeier, who is also Germany's vice-chancellor, said the proposals would include development aid in areas such as education as well as investment by private companies.

He said his new Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi had told him here that he planned to hold talks with his Afghan opposite number Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

"The lack of communication between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent months and years has contributed to the border situation between the two countries being so unsatisfactory," he said.

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